Here we are, signing off February – aka the psychological cemetery for 80% of New Year’s resolutions, according to the U.S. News & World Report (2018). Some of us are no doubt already feeling a little overwhelmed by everything we have set out to achieve in 2020. And some of us may be feeling downright crappy that we can’t seem to live up to our own high expectations of ourselves. But when it comes to change, there’s no quick fix… or is there? I think so, and the good news is that it is highly scalable!
The difference between who we are and who we want to be is a source of cognitive dissonance for many. I have long believed that the ritual of New Year’s Resolutions only serves to amplify and reinforce what we see as lacking in our selves. This perceived identity deficit, or gap, happens to be the engine room of our economy. The study of consumer behaviour has long known that to secure share of heart, mind and pocket, brands must promise to help close the gap between our current and desired state. The cynic in me knows however, that so long as each consumer purchase only goes part way to making us feel better, the gap will remain; the cycle of consumerism will continue, entwining emotions and economy as happy partners, and secure their measure of GDP growth. So how do we take back ownership of our gap and build bridges between who we are and who we want to be that allow us to grow sustainably?
My three top habit hacks
The science emerging around habits offers an alternative way to address the dissonance. The notion that ‘we are what we repeatedly do’ is a tangible and pragmatic way to master our goals, without expending significant money, time or even willpower in the process. As James Clear explains in his book ‘Atomic Habits’, it’s the tiny things that we do each day, that when enacted frequently and with consistency, define not only our behaviour, but our identity. Add to that accountability – the simple act of telling someone what we are hoping to achieve – and our chances of success increase by 70% (Matthews, 2015). Finally, own your start of day and end of day routines. These are powerful triggers in our daily cycle. Begin as you wish to continue, and continue as you wish to begin!
#1 MVH – Minimum Viable Habits
Minimum Viable Habits or MVH refers to the idea that successful behavioural change can be achieved by breaking down new habits into the smallest possible components. Think consistently placing a glass of water next to your bed each night if your end game is to drink 3 litres per day. Or simply putting on the gym gear every morning when you wake up if eventually, you want to do regular training. Due to the non-threatening and non-disruptive nature of MVHs, our brain doesn’t fight them. Once on the path to a new routine, the habits can be slightly tweaked to move you closer to real behavioural change at regular intervals.
The frame of reference I use to decide whether a habit is going to be worthwhile is whether I can do it frequently, and with consistency. The brain appreciates it when we can chunk routines down into a series of small, attainable habits – it gets to take a break! And that’s our chance to slide behavioural change in. The beauty of MVHs, is that humans have a tendency to want to be consistent. We like ticking off the list, showing we’ve made progress. The streaks app is a powerful tool that challenges its users: “Don’t break the chain, or your streak will reset to zero days.”
Science out of NASA traditionally holds that habits take 30 days to form. However more recently, research has shown it’s about the reps, if you are intentional about what you’re doing, small habits can be built, embedded, tweaked and scaled superfast.’
#2 Identity Habits – Say it Out Loud
Returning for a moment to the notion of cognitive dissonance, we all tend to portray ourselves to the world in our desired state. Whether that be the images we allow to appear on social media, the parts of our lives we select to portray when people ask how we’re doing, or simply preferencing carrying out tasks we already know we’re good at. Identity-based habits leverage this natural tendency in a positive way. We have a strong desire to be consistent with the version of ourselves we put out there, and so voicing a newly committed habit out loud, to people we care about, immediately makes us accountable.
The benefits of ‘saying it out loud’ however, seem to require careful selection of our accountability partner. Recent research out of The Ohio State University finds that people tend to be more committed to their goals after they share them with someone who they see as “higher status,” or whose opinions they respect. A Dominican University study found that more than 70% of participants who reported their progress to a friend were successful in goal achievement, compared to only 35% of participants who kept their goals to themselves. Numerous apps have popped up to facilitate social sharing of habits online, allowing users to select which goals they share and with whom they share their goals. The takeaway?
As humans, we are subconsciously strategic about the self we put forward to the world. In living up to this ‘self’, we benefit from being consciously strategic about sharing these goals with trusted and respected allies that will help champion our change. Who will hero your habits?
#3 Habits as Rituals – Own your start and end of day
For my 2020, I’ve been more attracted to wellness goals than productivity goals. This has brought into sharp focus the importance of setting the right tone each morning and closing out the day on the right note every evening. When we think of rituals, we tend to conjure tribal ceremonies, religious celebration or even tricky looking yoga poses accompanied by green juice. However, not all rituals need to be ornate, just quietly meaningful and easily repeatable.
When it comes to beginning and ending your days, simple rituals that embed intentionality can be extremely useful. The etymological meaning of ritual in zoology pertains to ‘giving each animal the time to assess the prowess of the other’. Therefore, ritual is about preparation, intentionality and ultimately, thriving in a sometimes hostile environment.
“Morning Sunshine” – my favourite a.m. habits
The morning rituals I have garnered along my journey involve:
1) a daily focus on the personal values I wish to live by
2) iterative realignment on both short and long-term goals
3) routine exercise and meditation
“Sweet Dreams” – 5 key p.m. habits
The other powerful point of intentionality happens just before we go to sleep. What is the last thing we think of each day?
1) a brain dump helps me transfer everything I have to do tomorrow to somewhere tangible so that it’s no longer on my mind
2) the Grateful app helps trigger a sense of humility, perspective and contentedness
3) my MVH is reading one chapter of a non-study, non-work book each night – thanks to this achievable practice, I’ve read three additional books already this year!
These small moments string together as a touchstone – helping steer the course when life throws unexpected challenges our way. These habits are less about closing the gap on our own cognitive dissonance and more about sitting in our true selves. As many leaders are realising, constant striving for growth is not necessarily socially healthy, environmentally sustainable, nor economically smart in the longer term. On a personal level too, ambition can start from within, rather than without.
I’d love to hear how you are getting along – what habit hacks work for you and what throws the routine out of whack? I’d even love to hear which New Year’s Resolutions you’ve buried.
Those of you who know me well, or who’ve seen me present, will know I’m obsessed with habits. It fascinates me that (depending on what habit study you read) between 30-40% of our daily activity is estimated to be habitual, and yet we have a tendency to overlook the marginal gains that are available to us by merely tweaking our repeated behaviour. Ultimately, success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations, so if we can work out how to make small changes and set them on autopilot, we can dramatically improve our results.
Every year, I like to try and get off the grid after Christmas to take stock of the year that was and plan for the year ahead. I review not just how I went relative to my goals but also reflect on how good a job I did at sticking to my ‘cornerstone habits’- the core couple of behaviours I was focused on maintaining a consistency with throughout the year. Then, as I turn my mind to my goals and aspirations for the year ahead, I ask myself the question ‘do my habits still serve my objectives?’
This year, my annual reflection was aided by a brilliant Christmas gift from my fellow personal development junkie, Layne Beachley (Thanks, Layne!), in the form of New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear breaks down the four components of habits (Cues-> Cravings -> Responses -> Rewards) and offers up a formula for how we can tweak each stage to cement new positive habits and banish bad ones. Clear defines an ‘atomic habit’ as a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth. At a high level, he talks about how we need to make the cues for positive habits simple, the cravings attractive, the responses easy and the rewards satisfying.
I devoured this book in a single sitting and highly recommend it to anyone who has a self-improvement focus or is stretching themselves in new ways in 2019. There were a couple of standout points that have given me a fresh perspective and/or a new approach to take into 2019 that I thought I’d share with you:
1. Build identity-based habits, not outcome-based habits
Clear suggests that when seeking to form effective habits we need to begin with an understanding of the type of person we want to be and then prove or reinforce that identity to ourselves with small wins. He argues that habits are not about ‘having’ they are about ‘becoming,’ so instead of setting a goal of running a marathon, you’d set out to become a runner. In essence, he contends that in order to change our habits we’ve got to change our identity and for as long as we don’t, no matter how much rational sense a habit change makes if it’s not identity-consistent we will fail to put them into action.
As a starting point, Clear suggests we ask yourself, “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?” and then consider all your actions as a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
How I’m applying this idea:
I started my 2019 planning from a really different place- instead of focusing (like I normally would) on what I wanted to achieve, I asked myself ‘who do I want to become? How do I want to show up?’ It led to a divergent line of self-inquiry to my usual outcome-focused goal-setting approach, and the introspection prompted me to reset my values and develop a new self-talk mantra for 2019.
2. “ You do not rise to the level of your goals- you fall to the level of your systems”
Ouch. This one hit me right between the eyes! On reflection, I think my systems had a lot of room for improvement in 2018!
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. I particularly loved this comment from Clear:
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.”
How I’m applying this idea:
I’m building in better systems! Including:
using visual cues more effectively in my surrounding environment (I’ve got my intention word for the year on my phone screensaver and my newly-minted values above my desk);
having an accountability buddy (my best friend) who I’ve built a weekly check-in questionnaire with, to help us hold one another accountable;
Using a habit tracking app (Streaks) to do my best to ‘never break the chain’- a phrase coined by Jerry Seinfeld when he was honing his comedy career to talk about the importance of doing what you’re trying to improve/build a habit in every single day.
Importantly, I’m being kinder to myself in 2019… I’m so self-competitive that the idea of doing something unbroken for 365 days runs the risk of becoming all-consuming! So instead, I’m holding the concept of ‘never break the chain’ in tension with the idea of ‘never miss twice’- it’s inevitable that life will get in the way of some of these habits (and sometimes in order to be open to possibilities that’s precisely what should happen!) so my focus is not on never missing but never missing twice.
3. Get your reps in!
Habit formation is the process by which a behaviour becomes progressively more automatic through repetition, so the amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as significant as the number of times you have completed it. Therefore, our focus needs to be on repeating our habits for as long as it takes to make them automatic.
Part of where we undo ourselves here (or at least I certainly do!) is by being too ambitious in how I chunk down my goals into habits, meaning I end up asking too much of myself from the outset to give myself much of a shot at building repetition to a point where I’ve got the habit on autopilot. For example, if I had a goal of becoming an author in 2019 and was trying to build a habit of writing consistently, previously I’d likely kick off January 1 by attempting to establish a pattern of writing 5000 words every day. Power to the people who can pull that off but for most of us that’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant- it’s overwhelming, exhausting and unlikely to leave you excited at the prospect of doing it all over again tomorrow. Instead, I would be better to start by writing a single sentence a day for a week, and when that became easy, we could progress to a paragraph or a page and so on.
Clear makes the point that every habit can be boiled down to a two-minute version, and that’s where we should start (i.e., writing the sentence, not the 5000 words!). The sooner that becomes easy for us to repeat the sooner we can take it to the next level, but we give ourselves the highest likelihood of success if we build reps first vs. loading up the weight.
How I’m applying this idea:
I’ve started my habit tracker on micro-habits this year- i.e., the 2-minute version of what I’m seeking to make an automatic routine. At the end of every month I’m going to reflect on whether I’ve got enough reps in to be able to increase the habit demand or whether I need to work at it a little longer.
Part of what I love about habits and systems is they’re not a ‘destination’ they’re a continual process, and ones which have an innumerate number of approaches and ideas. While I really resonated with some of James Clear’s ideas and perspectives, I’d love to hear about the approach you take to entrenching good habits and any tips you might have.
I also hope you might be able to keep me accountable for one of my 2019 goals: regularly sharing my thoughts and ideas online (via LinkedIn and other mediums). I’m committing to a habit of writing a LinkedIn blog monthly, and I’d love to know what sort of content would be of most significant interest to you.
Wishing you a Happy New Year and all the best with whoever you’re seeking to become in 2019.